The Simpsons Game is a very strange animal. On the one hand, it's the sort of rote, generally uninteresting action platformer that dozens of high-profile licenses have cribbed for nefarious game-making purposes over the years. Yet, at the same time, this is a game that knows what it is and takes every opportunity imaginable to riff on that very fact. The game is as much about mocking the various conventions of the game business as a whole as it is about being Simpsons fan service, which makes for a very weird and often hilarious experience; so much so that you almost forget the gameplay itself is still pretty uninteresting. Almost.
The Simpsons take on the game industry at large in The Simpsons Game.
The premise for The Simpsons Game is appropriately meta, given the circumstances. One day, Bart happens upon a manual for a game called The Simpsons Game, which has floated down from out of the sky. He learns that this game gives him and his family members special powers then promptly sets off to cause as much violence as possible. At the same time, a game called Grand Theft Scratchy has just been released in stores and Bart wants a copy, much to Marge's chagrin. She sets off on a crusade to stop video game violence. Then longtime comic foils Kodos and Kang show up to start blowing up the town, rehashing sequences from a variety of Treehouse of Horror episodes. Also, there's a weird and wacky world the Simpsons keep getting trapped in called "the game engine," an alternate dimension where video games are created, and which is run by a bunch of haggard-looking spoofs of Mario, Sonic, koopa troopas, Ryu, and Madden football players. There's also a bunch of utterly random cameos from notable personalities, both from the Simpsons universe and the game industry itself. This is one bizarre and genuinely incoherent adventure, which is to say it's a lot like an extended episode of the show.
The jabs at video game culture are especially excellent. At times, the Simpsons family will find itself in worlds that are directly cribbed from notable game franchises and genres. The sections that knock off Grand Theft Auto and Japanese gaming in general are especially good. But you'll also come across direct parodies of Medal of Honor, EverQuest, and Shadow of the Colossus, to name a few. There are even some subtler gags in there as well, like the little mini-levels that pop up, directly mimicking such classics as Gauntlet and Joust. There is a really sharp awareness of the gaming audience's mentality in the writing here, and the game's various parodies are just about pitch-perfect.
It's not all game humor, of course. There's plenty of Simpsons-oriented humor as well, with a ton of crazy in-jokes scattered throughout the gameworld. When the game isn't lifting specific scenes or situations from various old episodes of the show and turning them into game levels, it's throwing out truly obscure lines that reference things from Simpsons past that even some of the more dedicated fans of the show might need a minute to recall. Anyone remember Linguo, the grammar robot? Or the episode where Lisa became "Clobber Girl"? If you said "yes" then congrats because the writers have geared this game decidedly toward you and your ilk.
All of this excellent humor does a fine job of veiling the fact that the gameplay isn't very good. You'll be too busy giggling in most cases to notice that the camera is frequently getting in your way and that most of these mission objectives are just kind of boring. Most of the game revolves around simple action platforming where you hop around a lot of platforms and solve some light puzzles. You also beat up football players, pseudo-Ryus, miniature Krusty the Klowns, lumberjacks, Kodos/Kang lookalikes, killer dolphins, sumo Comic Book Guys, as well as gangsta Itchys and Scratchys, among others. Unfortunately, most of this stuff is just kind of boring. The combat has all the depth of the old Simpsons Arcade Game from the early '90s, and the finicky in-game camera has a tendency to make some of the platforming sections far more irritating than they should be.
Oddly enough, the game seems entirely self-aware of its own blatantly average gameplay. Along the way, you'll collect a number of "clichÂ£s," which are highlighted by Comic Book Guy himself. These include pits of lava you fall in, invisible barriers, a character's inability to swim, recycled enemies, escort missions, and the like. It's kind of funny to see these pop up because, yes, these are very clearly video game clichÂ£s. But the really weird thing is how utterly dedicated the game is to making you live through these clichÂ£s again. The game makes fun of escort missions, but then makes you do one anyway. You have to give the game credit for dedicating itself all the way to its gags, though the gameplay suffers a bit because of it.
Some of the parodies in this game are hysterical.